Sometimes I dig through my toolbox drawers looking for something and find tools I’d forgotten I had. And I might or might not find the tool I was looking for. Sound familiar? You can spend hundreds of dollars on organization systems, but you may not want to. Here’s how you can organize tool box drawers cheap, and without blowing your whole holiday weekend.
Toolbox organization trays can help you sort and group similar tools and keep the tools from jumbling into a mess, striking a balance between foam systems that look nice but offer no flexibility, and chaotic junk drawers that hide your tools from you. If some of your tools have instruction booklets, having trays lets you keep them right next to the tools if you ever need them.
Plastic tray drawer organizers
The 14-compartment organizer is the one everyone wants. It fills the drawers in most standard toolboxes, and the long compartments are long enough to accommodate most tools. They are also made up of three separate trays so you can rearrange and mix and match them. Of course my local store didn’t have any in stock.
I had to settle for an assortment of their other two types. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you.
The 6-compartment organizer
Harbor Freight’s cheapest offering is a 6-compartment drawer organizer, which costs about $6. It measures 22 inches wide by 10 inches deep and 1.5 inches tall.
This can have pluses or minuses, but here’s how I made it work.
Horizontally, it fits my Sears toolbox perfectly, but it leaves about 6.5 inches of open space in my drawer. The 10-inch depth is good for a lot of tools, but I have some screwdrivers and wrenches that are too big to fit that space. So I had to either let those tools overhang or come up with a different solution for those tools.
The top drawer in my toolbox is only about an inch deep, so these trays don’t fit in that drawer. That drawer is supposed to be for rulers and levels and tape measures, but still, it could benefit from some kind of divider.
But the size has some advantages in my deeper drawers. In my drawers that are three inches deep, I can put one organizer in the bottom of the drawer, then put a piece of 2×2 in the back of the drawer and a second organizer on top. Then I can see what’s in both organizers. The space behind the lower tray can house seldom used tools. Or I can pair the Harbor Freight organizer with one I make myself. Ultimately that was what I decided to do.
Saving money at Harbor Freight
At the end of my blog post about Harbor Freight’s quality, I have some tips for using coupons there. At the very least, you can save a couple of bucks on one of the organizers and get a free flashlight or tape measure.
Organizers for smaller tools
Harbor Freight also offers 11-compartment organizers. The 11-compartment organizer is a one-piece tray with three different sizes of compartments. It’s the same 22x10x1.5 size as the 6-compartment organizer. The smaller compartments are good for smaller tools like tape measures, or to corral up small items like screw bits.
I bought one of the 11-compartment organizers, but mostly because I bought all of the 6-compartment organizers they had.
Modifying Harbor Freight organizers
The Harbor Freight organizers are made of polystyrene, the same plastic as plastic model kits. So if you wanted, you could buy two organizers, cut about two inches of length off each of them, then glue them together into an organizer that fits a 22×16.5-inch drawer like mine. Either lacquer thinner or MEK will bond polystyrene extremely well. Just take the pieces outside, position the two pieces together, then run a bit of MEK or lacquer thinner along the edge between the two with a paintbrush to bond them.
If you go this route, be sure to do it outside, and if you have a ventilator mask, wear it. Both MEK and lacquer thinner are have extremely toxic fumes.
I decided not to go this route because I didn’t want to mess with MEK, and I figured it would be easier to make my own out of wood. At the very least, it’s a lot cheaper.
An important organization tip to consider
When you arrange your tools in trays, don’t put tools like pliers that can open on the far edges. You don’t want them to open up, then get jammed in your drawer, which happened to me. Put pliers in your center drawers, and tools like wrenches or chisels or screwdrivers on the sides. Unless you like taking your toolbox apart, that is.
You might also consider repurposing trays intended for use in kitchens or bathrooms. A kitchen cutlery tray can hold a variety of hand tools and you can probably fit two of them side by side in your toolbox. It won’t look like it was made for it, but it will work reasonably well, and you can still use the empty space outside the tray for storage.
In a similar vein, discount stores sell inexpensive bathroom trays that are about 9×6 inches. So you could fit three of them vertically in a drawer and place two of them horizontally in the space that remains. Or team two of them up with a Harbor Freight organizer to fill a drawer.
I spotted an option for deep drawers in the kitchen. My wife has a 8 quart dish pan that measures 11×13 inches and is three inches deep. Two of those would sit side by side and leave about two inches of drawer space in front of them. They could be useful for corraling up a power tool and its related accessories, manual, and spare parts. It turned out to be a pretty good size for my oscillating multi tool and its blade attachments and the like. I could put two of these in a three-inch drawer with the oscillating tool in one pan and my five different kinds of hammers in the other.
For a less durable but free option, go to a grocery store where you bag your own groceries, like Aldi or Save-a-Lot. Somewhere in the middle of the store, there will be a big wire cage where they throw boxes for customers to use instead of grocery bags. Look for a short, flat box like the ones for canned goods. You should be able to find ones that measure about 10x13x3.
I really wanted an organizer the full length of my drawer to accommodate longer tools, and I wanted to be able to put one of the short Harbor Freight trays above it in my drawers that are three inches deep. So I made my own out of 1×2 lumber. Three 1x2x8s gives you enough lumber to make two organizers, so two DIY organizers cost about $4 total. They can cost even less if you score some 1x2s in the cull lumber section. If you don’t know about cull lumber, you owe it to yourself to find out.
With a little luck in the cull lumber section, you may be able to build organizers for a little over a dollar apiece. Talk about organizing tool box drawers cheap!
Making a DIY organizer to organize tool box drawers cheap
To fit my toolbox, I cut two lengths of 1×2 to 20 inches, then six more lengths to 15 inches. These fit my drawers perfectly and yielded five compartments. Be sure to measure yours and adjust accordingly. I spaced the 15-inch boards about 3.5 inches apart. I screwed them together with thread-cutting screws to avoid splitting the wood. If you’ve never heard of them, here’s what you’ll want to know about thread-cutting screws. I tested the fit as I went, and I was glad I did. Your boards won’t be perfectly straight, and testing the fit lets you make corrections without having to take the whole thing apart.
You can adjust these however you want, such as adding horizontal dividers to split some of your 15-inch compartments into shorter compartments. There’s also no rule saying you have to space them evenly. You can space some closer together for narrow tools like screwdrivers, or further apart for wider tools like hammers.
After I built my third one, I broke out my Ryobi brad nailer. It definitely made the assembly go faster. With the brad nailer, I found I could knock together a divider in less than 10 minutes.
What about a base?
I didn’t put a base on my organizers that sit in the bottom of the drawer. It’s just wasted space and weight. For organizers that would stack, I cut a base out of flooring underlayment, You could just as easily use thin MDF or hardboard.
I made these in January, when it’s too cold to paint in the garage. But of course since they’re made of wood, they’ll take any kind of paint or primer I want to use. Painting them black to match the cabinet would make them look better. A gloss finish will resist dirt and stains better than other finishes, and black does a pretty good job of hiding dirt anyway. Consider applying a coat of polyurethane over the paint afterward to protect it, since it’s inevitably going to get banged around.
What about foam?
You can buy foam organizers, but they’re anything but cheap, especially if you buy the ones with openings already cut out. Plus, unless you buy the same brand of hand tools, your tools probably won’t fit.
A lot of people buy craft foam from craft stores and trace and cut the openings for their tools, and organizing a drawer with the foam method costs around $3 per drawer. So this is one way to organize tool box drawers cheap and it looks good.
But it’s a lot of work, and in my toolbox it would leave a lot of empty, unusable space. And what if I get more tools?
The other problem with foam is durability. If you use your tools a lot, the jostling from opening and closing the drawers wears out the foam. Trays will hold up better in the long run, even if they don’t look as good at first.
Personally, I’m more interested in just being able to find the tool I need when I need it. I can make a tray in less than half an hour. I can sort a drawer into two trays in about half an hour. I’d rather do that, then get back to working on my trains. Or building that console table I’ve been meaning to make for my wife.
Organizing drill bits
I was going to make an organizer for my drill bits, but then I noticed the cases my drill bits come in are about an inch deep when they’re opened. So I can store them open in my top drawer and have ready access to them.
That was enough to make me scrap my plans to drill 9/32″ holes in a piece of 1×4 to hold my hex-headed bits. Since I have room to use a drill bit case as a mini-organizer for them, there’s no reason for me to expend the extra effort. There’s certainly room for them in my shallow top drawer with my levels and tape measures.
If you have a printer on your computer, you don’t have to get a label maker to make labels to label your tools. Avery 5167 labels are a half inch tall and 1.75 inches wide, making them comparable in size to the labels you’d get from a label maker. If you don’t print a full sheet that’s OK, you can print the ones you need, save the sheet and just start further down the page the next time you need more labels. A package of Avery 5167 or generic equivalent labels costs half as much as a label printer, and that’s before you buy tape for them.
I put labels on my tray and on the drawer. This makes it easier to find everything, and when it’s time to put a tool away, it makes it easier to find the right place for it.
When you make your trays two deep, put labels on the drawer in front of where the tools go in the tray. That way your eyes will know where to look when you open the drawer.
A package of labels has a lot more than you need for your tool box drawers, but you’ll find yourself labeling your small parts organizer cabinet and other things in your shop too.
You can keep often-used hardware like screws and nails in your toolbox, but it probably won’t all fit. Here are some tips for sorting your screws and nails and other random hardware. Just like being able to find your tools, being able to find your hardware when you need it makes it a lot more useful, and saves you expensive trips to the hardware store in the middle of your projects.